Jacques Tourneur (1942)
Paul Schrader (1982)
Simone Simon (’42)/Nastassja Kinski (’82) - Irena
Kent Smith (’42)/John Heard (’82) - Oliver
Jane Randolph (’42)/Annette O’Toole (’82) - Alice
Tom Conway (’42) - Dr. Louis Reed
Malcolm McDowell (’82) - Paul Gallier
Ruby Dee (’82) - Female
Ed Begley, Jr. (’82) - Joe Creigh
Genre - Horror/Drama/Supernatural/Animals Run Amok
Running Time - 73 Minutes (1942)/118 Minutes (1982)
It’s been quite a while since I’ve done an Original vs. Remake post. Due to lack of time and laziness [sorry about that], I haven’t really treated this segment with as much respect as it deserves. However, thanks to Ryne from The Moon is a Dead World and his Halloween Fifteen, I finally get a chance to resurrect this bad boy. This time around, it’s for 1942’s CAT PEOPLE and its 1982 remake of the same name. Both films deal with the “scary” idea of female sexuality, but executed in completely different ways due to the eras they were released in. And while one film is definitely better than the other, both films are worth a look. Let’s see why both films deserve their nine lives.
Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), an architect and a hopeless romantic, goes to a local zoo and meets the beautiful and mysterious Irena (Simone Simon). Really quickly, the two end up marrying - yet Irena has not consummated the marriage with Oliver. Apparently, Irena comes from Serbian descent and has a big fear that any sort of intimacy will unleash a dormant evil inside of her. Supposedly to legend, her lineage will transform into giant cats if they become angry or sexually aroused. Oliver doesn’t get it, only leading him into the consolation of his co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph) out of frustration and unhappiness with Irena. Irena becomes increasingly jealous, coincidentally leading to a series of events where both Oliver and Alice are attacked by a black leopard. Is it just pure coincidence, or is Irena’s legend coming into fruition?
Irena (Nastassja Kinski) arrives in New Orleans to visit her estranged older brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell) whom she hasn’t seen since childhood. She is soon disgusted by Paul’s lustful interactions with her, especially since they’re family and because she’s a virgin. To escape from this stress, Irena visits the local zoo and asked to join the workforce by zoo curator Oliver (John Heard). She agrees, especially since she has become fascinated by this new panther at the zoo who has been on a killing spree. Paul eventually reveals to Irena that they are the last two of their species - a cursed tribe who are only allowed to mate with each other. If they mate with humans, they’ll turn into giant cats that can only be cured by murder.
The Val Lewton produced CAT PEOPLE is one of the finest horror films ever made. In a lot of ways, it’s probably should be considered the first psychological horror film - more concerned with playing tricks on your mind through shadows and sound, rather than showing us what we may think is going on. Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur changed the horror game, getting away from the Universal monsters and putting a more realistic spin while maintaining a supernatural edge.
The story itself really isn’t anything special. The premise that a mysterious person may be able to unleash something more monstrous, and hurt the ones they love because of it, is nothing new even by 1942. In fact, THE WOLF MAN had done it already in 1940. The way it’s executed is a different matter. The social commentary is an interesting one, as it seems to imply the danger of female sexuality. One of the main characters, Dr. Louis Reed, explains that Irena’s delusional tales of turning into a cat-person is because she’s afraid for sex and how it’ll change her once she has it. I’m sure feminists would have been in an uproar if the term had existed back in the early 1940’s, but it adds a memorable layer to the narrative. As the film moves along, you’re left to wonder whether Irena is really cursed, or if it’s all a figment of her imagination. There’s a scene where Irena finds a key in the lock of a panther cage, giving us a few beats until she presents the key to the zookeeper. We notice the cage door may have been a bit loose, meaning there’s a possible predator on the loose. So is the stalker an actual animal, or Irena herself in her primal form? Until the very end, we’re never really sure even when the hints hit us on the head.
The characters are fairly basic on the surface but add a lot of depth to the story. Irena is exotic and social awkward, making her an interesting character when it comes to her relationships. She quickly falls in love with good guy Oliver, even though she knows she can’t have sex with him and be his wife in the most complete way. She is encountered by women dressed in black, calling her “sister”, almost sensing Irena’s struggle with wanting intimacy. As the film moves along, we watch Irena change from soft-spoken woman to jealous and angry wife, almost becoming “catty” with her rivals. Oliver is a hopeless romantic who is willing to marry a beautiful woman without sleeping with her. How many men would do that today in 2016? His naivety and wanting happiness with a woman who excites him makes you want to root for him, even though we know his idea of romance isn’t exactly realistic. There’s no hope for Oliver and Irena, even though you wish there was for Oliver. At least he has Alice, his co-worker who admits having a crush on him. Yet, Alice never tries to ruin his relationship with Irena, actually trying to help Irena with her issues so she could make Oliver happy. Because she becomes the target of Irena’s anger, Alice is the one who figures it all out and try to save Oliver from his wife. Then we have Dr. Reed, who tries to help Irena, but really lusts after her. It’s as if he finds Irena’s story so bizarre, he wants to test her theories on a personal level, being her first. I think we can guess how well that goes for him. Not a lot of characters in CAT PEOPLE, but they add a lot to the film.
The direction by Jacques Tourneur is pretty fantastic. Tourneur tells us a lot with so little, focusing more on the psychological aspect of filmmaking rather than the visual style of showing us a monster to scare us. CAT PEOPLE is filmed almost like a film noir at times, using the dark and the light to the film’s advantage, showing us things that may or may not be there. Probably the film’s best, and most iconic moment, is when Alice is walking through the park after a meeting with Oliver. Irena has seen the two interact and follows Alice in jealous rage. As Alice walks, we just see her walking with the sound of high-heel footsteps behind her. Then subtly, the footsteps are gone, yet Alice is still being followed. After a suspenseful cat-and-mouse chase, Alice is startled by the hissing of a bus that is making its stop. We then see movement in the trees as Alice is freaked out. But is it just the wind, or cat-Irena? A scene later, where Alice is terrorized by the growling and shadow of a large cat at a swimming pool, only to later reveal Irena just wanting to ask Alice a question, is also presented extremely well. Both scenes present terror in a more emotional and mental manner, rather than a visual one, letting our minds play tricks on us to see things that probably aren’t there. Tourneur is very subtle in his direction, creating a haunting mood that lingers because he doesn’t really show us anything. CAT PEOPLE is a thinking man’s horror movie, which is probably why it has stood the test of time compared to some other horror films of the same period.
The acting in CAT PEOPLE is a bit dated. It’s 1940’s acting that presents itself as more romanticized and stagey, rather than something more natural and improv. But Simone Simon carries herself well as Irena, conveying a layer of mystery while also coming across as sympathetic due to her strange belief. Her struggle to be normal, despite the fact that she feels that normalcy will destroy her relationship with Oliver, is conveyed well. I do feel Kent Smith and Jane Randolph come across as a bit old-timey in their performances, but it works for their characters and for the time. Tom Conway plays Dr. Reed in a semi-lecherous sort of way that I liked. The actors are fine here, even if modern audiences might find the performances a bit hammy.
After the success of 1978’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS remake, the idea of a CAT PEOPLE remake was discussed. It was on the back burner until the dual release of two werewolf films - 1981’s THE HOWLING and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON - both films that displayed incredible transformation effects. Wanting to be different from the original film, director Paul Schrader and writer Alan Ormsby want to showcase some cat transformations, while also destroying any subtlety the original had proudly showcased. While the 1982 remake is definitely of its time and does certain things well, it also proves why sometimes less is more.
The story takes the same commentary on female sexuality and really hammers it into the audience. We know right away that Irena is a virgin, with her brother Paul leering and lusting after her the moment he lays eyes on her. He stalks her like a cat, and even tries to rape her at one point, almost wanting to destroy her innocence to unleash who she really is. Unlike the original, we know for a fact that Irena and Paul are cat-people who can only mate with each other to keep their animal selves in check. In many ways, Shrader and Ormsby are not just focusing on just female sexuality, but sexuality of both sexes. For Irena and Paul, it leads to dangerous moments where their lust leads to murder. Sex isn’t really a fun thing. It’s a dangerous, evil aspect of our selves that many of us struggle to control. Paul picks up random women and hookers, having sex with them and then killing them to fully satisfy his lust. Irena wants to have sex with Oliver, but knows doing so will lead to something bad that could destroy them. CAT PEOPLE is sexually charged, using its eroticism to tell a dangerous story of how caving in to the pleasures of the flesh will only lead to destruction. While it’s an interesting foundation to base a movie on, it almost feels as if our filmmakers are criticizing human nature. We are sexual creatures, so why punish us for that?
The story also takes away what made the 1942 version work - the subtle nature of the cat legend. What worked there is that we barely saw anything when it came to Irena. Was she a cat? Was she just delusional? Was she maybe a serial killer with an excuse? Until the very end, we had to keep guessing. In the 1982 version, we start with the whole backstory, with how the cat-people tribe would sacrifice people to maintain their race. Paul and Irena actually possess cat-like agility and traits, such as yellow eyes and claws. When a panther murders a prostitute and is later caged, we know right away it’s Paul - especially since Irena is attracted to him in that form. The last act of the film features Irena understanding her ancestry, struggling with her human and cat sides. I shouldn’t complain too much about this, since 1982’s CAT PEOPLE does exactly what a remake should do - take what was established in the original and update it for a modern time. It’s a different take on the same story, which gives it a reason for audiences to watch both versions. But the subtlety still works from the 1942 version very well. And while I get the sexuality of the remake, it seems like it’s more style than substance.
It doesn’t help when classic scenes from the original are redone when they aren’t necessary. The bus and pool scenes are updated for the remake, but without the depth of the original. These scenes added something in the 1942 film, as the mystery elevated these moments. Watching them in the remake makes them seem pointless, especially when we know Irena is really a cat-person. Plus she goes after this version of Alice, who is Oliver’s co-worker and nothing more really. Why would Irena feel threatened by her? Why would she be a target? It’s just done to pay homage to what people remember from the original. But if these scenes were missing, the only things that would be missing are Annette O’Toole’s boobs [as nice as they are].
The characters are also lacking in this version as well. Irena and Paul are interesting because they’re cat-people who are forced to commit incest in order to survive and re-populate their race, as they’re the only two left. Irena’s struggle here isn’t as deep as in the original, although watching her confusion and frustration about the truth about her life is pretty good. Paul is purely a predator, who just wants to be with his sister sexually. The other characters, like Oliver and Alice, don’t get to do much but window dress. Oliver could be an interesting character, as the character gets more to do here. But he’s just there because the original had an Oliver, and there needed to be a rival for Paul when it comes to Irena. Alice is just a co-worker. Another character, Female, should have been given more to do since she knows about these cat-people. But she’s barely in the movie. There is so much potential to update all of these characters, but it seems Schrader and Ormsby were more focused on getting people naked.
The special effects by Tom Del Genio, Pat Domenico and Karl Miller are pretty good here. The cat transformations are done well, using editing to show the change for the most part. It’s no AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, but it’s a nice attempt. I actually thought the death scene of one of the zoo workers was a better effect, where panther Paul rips the arm of Ed Begley, Jr. It looks pretty realistic and adds much needed blood to the modern remake. It’s pretty tame otherwise in terms of gore, but it’s not bad.
The direction by Schrader is more hit than miss. The photography of the film is absolutely stunning. The reds and oranges used for the land of the Cat-People is just strikingly beautiful. Also beautiful - Nastassja Kinski, who Schrader enjoys filming in her clothes and especially out of them. I’m not complaining. She is a gorgeous woman. I think it added an erotically charged atmosphere that audiences for that time were able to accept and to understand. And the use of Giorgio Moroder’s score is just fantastic, with David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” being one of his finest hits during the 1980s. I wish the direction was more restrained at times, and maybe had more tension and suspense. But this version of CAT PEOPLE is more of a sex thriller than an actual horror film.
The acting is probably the only real improvement over the original. Nastassja Kinski is not only beautiful, but she captures the innocence of a young woman who struggles with her real identity perfectly. She comes across so innocent, yet there’s a definite sexual energy through her performance that builds and builds towards the film’s end. Malcolm McDowell gives a charged performance as Paul, coming across as a villain who just wants to be loved and lusted by his sister. I wish he was in the film more, but he does well in his limited role. John Heard plays Oliver in a less hopefully romantic way, but more grounded and curious. He and Kinski have comfortable chemistry. Annette O’Toole is cute, but doesn’t really add much to the film really. Ruby Dee is great in her small role as Female, bringing mystery to a too small of a role. And Ed Begley, Jr. is there to be sacrificed for those who lust some blood in their horror. But he’s fine and likable in his short role. It’s a nice cast for a remake that should have pushed the envelope beyond the sexuality.
THE FINAL HOWL
While both versions of CAT PEOPLE are worth watching for different reasons, I get more out of the original 1942 version over its 1982 remake. The 1942 version takes a “less-is-more” approach that is still very effective today, while the 1982 version is more focused on its sexual energy over telling a more interesting narrative. If you want to feel a chill up and down your spine, stick with the original. If you want to feel a chill in your pants, go with the remake. I respect the remake for taking a different approach about that “dreaded female sexuality” and having good performances. But I’ll take the original any day of the week, as it gives me a lot with so little.
CAT PEOPLE (1942)
CAT PEOPLE (1982)